This Day in Jewish History, 1899

A Spiritually Versatile Thief, MP and Buddhist Monk Is Baptized

At the end of the day, Ignacz Trebitsch-Lincoln seemed devoted to only one true belief: that nothing is true.

Richard Arthur Norton / Wikimedia Commons

On December 25, 1899, Ignacz Trebitsch-Lincoln underwent baptism into the Presbyterian church.

This fact is noteworthy not only because Trebitsch-Lincoln was brought up as a traditional Jew, but also because he ended his life as a Buddhist monk. In between, he kept busy as a Protestant missionary, an Anglican priest, a member of British Parliament, an international political agitator, a businessman, and finally, the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in China.

Ignacz Timotheus Trebitsch was born in Paks, Hungary, on April 4, 1879. His father, Nathan Trebitsch, was a merchant from Moravia who had lost his fortune in a stock-market crash.

While Nathan was still in school, the family moved to Budapest. After school, he enrolled at the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art, but he quit that too, and Hungary in general, after several run-ins with the law concerning his tendency to steal.

After wanderings in London, and then a return to Hungary, Trebitsch traveled to Hamburg, where he underwent baptism as a Presbyterian in 1899, whereupon he left for Breklum, in northern Germany, to begin studying at a Lutheran seminary there. That ended when he became engaged to be married.

Then followed a spell of missionary work in Canada, on behalf of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Among the Jews. Not encountering great success as a proselytizer, and after arguing with his employers over the size of his pay, he returned to England.

Pals with the Archbishop of Canterbury

There he charmed his way into the circle around the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appointed him as curate in Appledore, Kent. Between 1906 and 1909, Trebitsch Lincoln served as private secretary to Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, son of the founder of the famous chocolate company.

Rowntree was extremely active with the Liberal party, and with his support, Trebitsch Lincoln, though not yet a British citizen, decided to run for a seat in Parliament, representing Darlington, in County Durham.

By the time the election took place, in January 1910, Trebitsch Lincoln had undergone naturalization, and with the endorsements of both David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, he won.

Unfortunately, a century ago, being an MP did not come with a salary, and Trebitsch Lincoln soon found himself in dire financial straits. Fortunately, a general election was called for November 1910, and he did not stand for reelection.

The oil tycoon phase

Then there was his attempt to become an oil tycoon, in Romania, and during World War I, Trebitsch Lincoln offered his services as a spy to both the Germans and the British. When the British pursued him for espionage, he escaped to the United States, where he was apprehended, then extradited back to the U.K. There, his citizenship was revoked, and he was sent to prison for three years.

Prison did not make an honest man of Trebitsch Lincoln. After his release, he went to Germany, where he participated in the 1920 Kapp Putsch, an abortive attempt to overthrow the elected Weimar government (it was during this episode that he met Adolf Hitler). Next, he joined White International, a reactionary, revolutionary organization that worked to undermine the results of the Versailles Conference after World War I.

In his own memoir, Trebitsch Lincoln explained with candor that when he moved on to China, in 1922, “my purpose was to start trouble in Central Asia.” And though he underwent a mystical experience and became a Buddhist abbot, he did carry on with his intrigues.

At the monastery he established in Shanghai, Trebitsch Lincoln instructed his disciples to turn over their earthly wealth to -- him, of course -- and also earned himself a reputation for seducing the female students.

In the final chapter of the Trebitsch Lincoln saga, the Buddhist monk offered his services writing anti-British propaganda for the Japanese. He also proposed to introduce Hitler to the “Sages of Tibet,” whom he said would rise up against the British in Eastern Asia. Hitler wasn’t interested.

Ignacz Trebitsch Lincoln died in Shanghai on October 4, 1943.